With over 100 people filling Moloney Hall, 11 teams of presenters take to the stage, making pitches via microphone to a panel of judges. Voiced ideas range from a web-based platform that will help military veterans negotiate disability benefits to a top that turns empty cans into environmentally friendly repositories for cigarette butts. The motivator for all: a piece of $35,000 in funding.
The finalists had already passed through previous elimination rounds, and these last hours represent the culmination of months of work on project proposals and rocket pitches. Eight judges, including alumnus Rich Miner, cofounder of Android and general partner at Google Ventures, decided on the ultimate distribution of awards. Team eNABLE Lowell walked away with the highest winnings of $6,000 for their venture, supplying low-cost, 3D-printed prosthetic hands to children.
This fourth annual Idea Challenge, which took place in April 2016, is the highlight of the year for the UMass Lowell DifferenceMaker program. Extracurricular and open to all undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. students as well as alumni within one year of graduation, DifferenceMaker operates around one single goal: Engage students in tackling real-world problems. It capitalizes on students’ natural inclination to make a difference.
“It’s an entrepreneurship program geared toward social responsibility,” explains director Holly Butler. “Students in any discipline come to us with ideas they want to pursue or problems they want to solve, and we help them develop sustainable solutions and give them the resources they need to pursue those solutions.”
Under the guidance of Butler and program manager Ha Pho, DifferenceMaker operates year-round, helping turn “a ha” moments into concrete, funded realities. Some students tackle big issues like pollution and world health; others take on more general concerns such as education (one winning idea: an app to help students share and fact-check class notes) or health (another winning idea: a specialized device to track the path of a barbell in motion that syncs with smartphones). DifferenceMaker participants sometimes remain solo but more often team up with fellow students in fields of study that complement the business task at hand.
To start, students can simply walk into the DifferenceMaker office and get immediate feedback on their vision. Then, if there’s potential for progression, the program’s resources kick in. Physical workspaces are available for meetings and pitch practicing, and alumni and community members are on call for mentorships. Students can even access a 3D printer and machinery in the Francis College of Engineering to build prototypes as needed. Competitions like Idea Challenge aren’t required, but for those who are serious about taking their concept to the next level, competition success generates important initial funding for startup costs such as materials and travel.
The concept for DifferenceMaker began in 2012 when UMass Lowell chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, who was executive vice chancellor at the time, had an idea to better engage students in entrepreneurial pursuits, and she reached out to professor Steven Tello for his thoughts. “She explained that she and the chancellor were committed to making UMass Lowell an entrepreneurial campus: in curriculum, stewardship of resources, and research,” recalls Tello, whose own entrepreneurship coursework at the Manning School of Business made him an excellent candidate for brainstorming.
Using programs at other universities as examples, Moloney and Tello began developing DifferenceMaker from the ground up. “Jacquie is very committed to the the community and the region’s nonprofits,” says Tello. “She believes it is important that entrepreneurship have a social and community impact. We also wanted to see students build long-term solutions that could be implemented and sustained for years, not just semesters.”
True to this vision, many DifferenceMaker-fostered solutions turn into initiatives that live on well past graduation day. Just one example is BioBubbler, a $4,000 winner from the 2014 Idea Challenge. Spearheaded by students Rachel Paquette and Nawal Khan, BioBubbler is a low-cost water filtration system designed to address waterborne illnesses in Haiti. To date, it has implemented seven prototypes in Haitian homes and is educating the community on building, cleaning, and sustaining them.
“We are always pushing for DifferenceMaker solutions to be sustainable, and BioBubbler is a great example,” says Butler. “It uses materials that are easy to access in Haiti and doesn’t need specialty tools for maintenance.”
Meanwhile, eNABLE Lowell, since its 2016 Idea Challenge win, is continuing its innovative work with 3D printer prosthetics. “We’ve been making hands for kids since December of last year,” says cofounder Peter Larsen, 22. “Our first recipient was Ethen, an eight-year-old boy from Freeport, Florida, whose first hand arrived on Christmas Eve. Since then, we’ve sent him two more hands: improved designs based on video chats with him.”
eNABLE Lowell has delivered a hand to Lilly in Northern Ireland and is working with a girl from Germany while actively building a recipient base in the New England area. “The more often we can meet a kid face to face, the better we can serve them,” says Larsen, who just graduated from UMass Lowell with a bachelor’s degree in biology and who plans to return this fall to begin his master’s degree in biotechnology. “I love the idea of using technology to improve and enrich lives,” he adds.
The beauty of DifferenceMaker is that, even if students don’t walk into the office right away, the program’s philosophy of thinking creatively about business development and community involvement can plant a seed that might blossom in a week, in a month, or a couple years.
“Basically, our mission is to help students think more entrepreneurially, to create that mindset,” says Butler. “Whether they are majoring in music or nursing or business, it is likely that they are going to have problems to solve in their careers, problem that might require them to pitch an idea to their boss, for example.”
Since its inception in June 2012, DifferenceMaker has reached over 20,000 students, facilitated 52 winning teams, awarded $135,000, and seen 13 companies formed and six patents filed or awarded. Appropriately enough, the program continues challenging itself, adding more promotional events on campus each year and arranging more competitions. Already, next year’s Idea Challenge will award $50,000 in funds (derived from alumni donations), a doubling of the 2013 total.
Perhaps the greatest reason why DifferenceMaker lives up to its name is because the very concept draws on students’ own personal drive to make a difference in a field that matters to them. It’s not course work; it’s not a requirement. It’s an opportunity to take a progressive thought to the next level.
“Whether the result is an innovative thought or the launch of a new company or nonprofit, DifferenceMaker is all about empowering our students to make a difference in the world,” says Butler. “Everyone is capable of good ideas, and we help turn the great ones into reality.”